Stopping the tenure clock

Published October 03 2016

The vast majority of colleges and universities in the United States have “stop the clock” or “tenure clock extension” policies. These policies are designed to ameliorate the impact of profound life events, such as childbirth or a serious illness, on a faculty member’s progress toward academic tenure.

Although these policies are virtually universal, considerable confusion about the criteria and process by which someone can invoke a delay in the tenure-review clock exists among tenure-track faculty, their faculty peers, and — speaking as someone who served nearly 11 years as a department head — even the chairs of academic units. Moreover, while institutional “stop the clock” policies are generally similar in overall form, they may differ both in terms of the range of events covered by the policies and the mechanics of the application process. For example, some schools will allow a new faculty member to invoke a delay if promised equipment or facilities are not completed or acquired by the institution in a timely manner. Others do not recognize this contingency.

It is incumbent upon anyone with questions about eligibility for a delay in his or her tenure clock to be proactive in finding out about the specific policies and procedures in effect at his or her home institution:

Consult authoritative sources. Anecdotal information from friends and colleagues can be misleading. Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security. Read the relevant section(s) of the faculty handbook, meet with your university human resources office, and especially, identify and meet with the person responsible for overseeing the review of applications for stopping the clock.

Act in a timely manner. As soon as a potentially eligible event occurs or you anticipate that one will come up, submit your application. The details will be fresh in your mind, and the timeline will show that your request is related directly to the event in question rather than a desperate attempt at a stay of execution.

Consider applying even if you feel comfortable that the event in question left you on track for meeting your original mandatory review deadline. Find out if a “stop the clock” authorization precludes the opportunity to be considered for early tenure at your institution. Also find out how long you can delay applying for a “stop the clock” on your tenure review. Determine if and how your institution informs and instructs both internal and external evaluators regarding a “stop the clock” event.

The latter is important, as research indicates that some evaluators confuse stopping the clock with a lengthening of the probationary period. Therefore, it is important that all faculty, not just tenure candidates, approach the “stop the clock” process in an informed manner.

Peter J. Kennelly Peter J. Kennelly is a professor of biochemistryat Virginia Tech.